Sloth, Song, Story
February 16, 2016

As we know, there are seven deadly or capital sins. Prior to the list of the seven deadly sins there was a list of eight evil thoughts or demons. It was made by an Eastern monk, Evagrius Ponticus. When the list was transposed to the West, one evil thought was lost: acedia.

Actually, the West identified acedia with sloth, and indeed acedia can be identified as spiritual sloth, although with some qualifications. It is not so much laziness but rather “an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man's mind, that he wants to do nothing; thus acid things are also cold. Hence sloth implies a certain weariness of work, as appears from a gloss on Psalm 106:18, ‘Their soul abhorred all manner of meat,’ and from the definition of some who say that sloth is a ‘sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good’” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae).

Nevertheless, many prefer to keep the word acedia untranslated. “The Greek word akēdia has no easy equivalent in English. The medievals often translated it as ‘sloth,’ but that is not what the desert tradition means. For Evagrius, acēdia is a sort of restless boredom, a listlessness, and beneath that, discouragement. For centuries, Evagrius's translators have groped to find a single term that captures the rich meaning he gives the word acēdia. Early Syrian scholars, for instance, translated it as ‘despondency of spirit’ or ‘ennui,’ while John Cassian translated it into Latin as taedium cordis, ‘weariness of heart’” (William Harmless, Desert Christians. An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism).

According to Gabriel Bunge, “at the root of acedia lies the frustration of a desire” (Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia). A person in the grip of acedia “hates whatever is in front of him and desires what is not there” (Evagrius Pinticus, The Praktikos). Acedia rebels against the reality and longs for the impossible but because it can never be satisfied, acedia leads to melancholic sentimentalism, to barren longing.

Evagrius Ponticus in The Praktikos left a very vivid description of acedia: “The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. . . . First of all, he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. . . . Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. . . . This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life's necessities more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life.”

This sense of unfulfillment is often acted out in negligent work and irritation with your place or with people around. You can also see it in boredom mixed with impatience and lack of desire to participate in worship or sing of the Psalms. The person of acedia thinks worship useless or silly.

Acedia can arise after a period of great excitement and touches people who once showed great enthusiasm and dreamt about great achievements. Disappointments fill them with apathy and cynicism, so they come to the conclusion that nothing is worth fighting for, nothing worth the sacrifice. Acedia is not just laziness but angry protest. Yet, no bread will come out of this flour. It is a pure but futile protest and contestation. This is what makes it sentimental: its fruitlessness.

The Greek word akedia does not appear in the New Testament, but can be found in the Septuagint. In Psalm 61:2 David says: “My heart is faint,” and in 119:28: “My soul melts away for sorrow (or: heaviness).” In Isaiah 61:3 the prophet speaks about “a faint spirit” (or: “a spirit of heaviness”). Acedia is contrasted here with strength, gladness, and praise, and in the context of Isaiah 61 acedia stands in opposition to the ministry of Christ, because Christ quotes the passage in the synagogue in Nazareth at the beginning of His ministry. We could say that Isaiah 61 is the Messiah’s Manifesto to free us from the faint spirit.

The state of God’s people depicted in Isaiah 61 is very distressing and worrisome: broken hearts, sadness and mourning, tears and lamentation, and all these in the middle of ruined towns and villages. It speaks hopelessness brought about by the enormity of a disaster that fell upon the people of God. The situation overwhelmed them and they could not see any way out of it; they could not deal with it or handle it in any rational and trusting way. It was the end of their world, nothing could be done, they were deserted and helpless, everything was lost. When we find ourselves in situations like this, we have no will do to anything more, we do not care anymore. We feel that whatever we do, it will not change anything for better. And we feel sorry for ourselves.

More could be said about acedia, but we do not want to become sentimental and start bewailing ourselves. Being discouraged is not an excuse for doing nothing. This is not a Biblical pattern of behavior. The more important question is: Where in the Bible should we look for a cure to acedia?

In Isaiah 61 the prophet says that when Christ comes, He will give us strength, gladness, and praise instead of the faint spirit, and the result of it will be rebuilding of wrecked homes and towns. But notice the sequence: first a catastrophe comes and a faint spirit it the result of it. We might expect God to rebuild the devastated land to make us glad and hopeful again. But not. That’s not the sequence. First God frees us from the faint spirit and then enables us to rebuild the land. He gives us songs of praise and then calls us to work and ministry.

Psalm 137 admits that when we are depressed and discouraged, it is hard to sing songs of praise. Instead, we silently turn inward and start to analyze what happened. And the longer we think about it, the more depressed we become, the more worried. That is not a way out of our troubles. Self-pity cannot heal injured souls.

Perhaps this is why Paul in Ephesians 5:18-20 writes: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Collective singing of Psalms is a way to be filled with the Spirit, and this is the Spirit of “power and love, and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Acedia may be caused by something other than a disastrous event. It may be brought about by weariness, by everyday routine, by work that does not satisfy us because we cannot see its fruits or we do not regard them as significant.

It seems that a situation like this is addressed in the Hebrews. It does not deal with a particular sin like adultery, lust or anger. It deals with losing heart, quitting, throwing in the towel because the road has been hard and it does not seem to be worth to press on. That’s the other side of acedia.

The Epistle to the Hebrews was addressed to people who had seen the glory of Christ, had acknowledge His supremacy, and had worshipped Him as the King of Kings. But after a series of discouragements they came to a conclusion that the things were not that simple. The cost of discipleship seemed to be higher than any benefit coming from it. They were about to lose their confidence and give up.

At the end of chapter 10 the author says: “Do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” First of all, we need to “look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). If we follow Him, we will partake not only in His sufferings but also in His glory. What we need is a right perspective and good memory. We need to recall the glorious stories of the heroes of the faith.

As it is broadly recognized, stories are ways of organizing experience and so of acquiring a better understanding of history. Stories help us to ascribe sense to our life by means of recognizing our place in a story or, as we should rather say, in the story of Christ. This is why the author of the Hebrews commands: remember Abel, Noah, Abraham, all the rest.

 When we feel discouraged or depressed, when we think that all we need is just to give up and let it go, when we start wanting not to want, and come to a conclusion that the old days where better than the present but at the same time we know that the paradise lost is lost forever, then we need to reach for two kinds of medicine: song and story. There we will find strength and courage, will and meaning.

And this is precisely what we do every Sunday: we sing the hymns of Zion and we retell the stories of the heroes of the faith. Psalms free us from the noonday demon, like they did with Saul. Stories reinject a sense of meaning and hope. This is how God lifts us up and enables us to rebuilt the broken world.

Bogumil Jarmulak is Presiding Minister of the Anselm Presbytery of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches.

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